Saudis face the specter of unemployment as the oil-rich kingdom, home to millions of foreign workers, battles to enroll tens of thousands of its mostly young population who graduate each year.
Although the kingdom has the largest Arab economy, and is the world’s biggest oil exporter, the unemployment rate remains above 10 percent in a country where youth represent 55 to 60 percent of around 19 million nationals.
“I applied for jobs with the public and private sector, but I had no luck,” complained Majed Hasan, 26, who has an English-language degree, and that the low salary and long working hours drove him away from working at a translation office.
Majed, who lives in Jeddah, said he worked for a year in a telecommunications shop, then opened his own grocery, which he had to shut down “due to competition from foreigners.”
Mufreh al-Kubaishi, 25, who has a law degree from an Australian university, said he was “considering going for post-graduate studies because [work] conditions are not encouraging.”
He said he has two sisters and a brother in the southwestern province of Jazan who graduated a few years ago and are still without jobs.
The World Bank has said unemployment among Saudis has remained above 10 percent in past years, hitting mainly newcomers into the labor force, especially university graduates.
Dozens of universities across the desert kingdom pump out some 100,000 graduates every year into a work force dominated by some 8 million foreigners, mostly from Southeast Asia, who are prepared to take the low wages that a Saudi would reject.
One of the main problems is that Saudis prefer government jobs, where salaries are better and working hours are shorter than in the private sector.
The private sector appears also not keen on employing Saudis.
Saudi economist Ihsan Abu Haliqa argued that the problem is due to a “lack of determination” to accommodate the Saudis in jobs that are filled by foreigners.
“Official statistics show that in 2011 alone, some 1.1 million work visas were issued for foreigners who are above the level of domestic workers and the like. This means around 100,000 workers being brought in monthly,” he said.
Economics lecturer at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Farouk al-Khatib, said the public sector represents job security and less stress for Saudis.
“The rights of employees are better secured than they are in the private sector. There is no arbitrary dismissal, nor overtime work, while working hours end in the early afternoon, and the weekend break is two days,” he said.
He said that even those who do join the private sector continue to look for a job in the public sector.
In an attempt to tackle the growing problem, Saudi authorities have been for many years trying to “Saudize” jobs and created a support program for job seekers.
In January, Labor Minister Adel Faqih said “the main challenge facing us is how to find new jobs for Saudis in the private sector, because we need 3 million posts by 2015 and 6 million by 2030.”
He said Saudis should replace foreign workers, who “transfer home 100 billion riyals ($26.7 billion) a year.”
Under its “Nitaqat” (Ranges) program that is aimed at prodding firms to employ Saudis, the Labor Ministry imposed quotas last year on companies for hiring Saudis, which would determine their ability to recruit foreigners.
For example, banks with a work force of up to 500 must now have a minimum of 49 percent Saudi staff.
Those in the wholesale trade with the same number of staff have to employ a minimum of 19 percent Saudis, with the same quota applied to media, insurance companies and government schools.
Meanwhile, for those still unemployed, some 1.23 million people benefit from a program known as “Hafiz” (Incentive), 86 percent of them women, according to the director of the program, Khaled al-Ajmi.
Hafiz pays a monthly allowance of 2,000 riyals ($534) to those on its lists.
Official figures show that unemployment among women surges to near 30 percent, with some 1 million women looking for jobs, including 373,000 who are university graduates.
Women face massive restrictions in the job market due to the strict rules of segregation between men and women in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The country has been reaping the windfall of high oil prices for several years, with inflated receipts allowing the government to spend on social needs and infrastructure investments.